Cursing the muscari

 

This week in the garden it’s been more slow build than mad dash. The snowdrops are filling out splendidly, the scent of the sarcococca is noticeably gathering in the air, the hamamelis buds are beginning to show their spidery finery. And this is all good stuff. But the muscari…

This is the week that I curse the muscari.

These are the muscari that I chucked into the edge of a couple of borders one year after they had done their lovely thing in my containers.

IMG_2021
The right place for muscaris!

 

Let me tell you that this was a big mistake! Because around about now is when they pop up where they aren’t wanted, looking all grassy and meh. They hang around in tatty clumps and annoy the hell out of me. Last year I had a purge and thought I’d got rid of them all. I moved a whole heap of the little blighters to fill the area under the espaliered apples in the veg garden. But here they are, back again in the borders. And particularly annoying, they are mustering right outside the kitchen window.

So I’m staring right at them, right this very minute.

img_4501
Maddened by muscari

My advice for what it’s worth is to be cautious of anything described as vigorous. Invasive is self evident; we all know to steer clear of invasive. But vigorous can sound like a really good thing. The problem is that once you’ve got vigorous in your garden, it’s going to be with you for a very long time. So you’d better be sure you like it.

My current offenders are the aforementioned muscari, an acid yellow primula that popped up out of nowhere and at first I rather liked, an alstromeria I innocently bought at a plant fair. There are others that turn up a bit later, like alchemilla mollis, centranthus ruber, valeriana officianalis, verbena boniarensis and tellima that I like enough to forgive their overenthusiasm. But you can have too much of a good thing and liking can turn to loathing when there is an overabundance.

In my opinion muscari are best in containers or borders where their clumping habit is acceptable. This is not in full view of where I sit to eat my breakfast.

Apart from muscari madness we have had another bit of excitement in an otherwise quiet week in the garden. This morning saw the arrival of…

The Ferretman.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that I wage constant war with the rabbits in my garden. And nine times out of ten – actually make that ten times out of ten – they win. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that a mound of earth had appeared in the corner bed on the drive side of the house. Seemed like the demon bunnies were tunnelling their way in. Quick call to the pest control people who have helped with a rat problem in the past. Vanessa the pest lady pops round and tells us that this time round we have a rabbit problem.

Now I don’t need this spelling out. But under the house is a new one on us. Vanessa suggests that ferrets could be the answer. My favourite ever answer phone message is the one that begins: ‘Hello, this is The Ferretman speaking…’

So Martin turns up with his ferrets. And it’s all very exciting. And he gets going with nets and ferrets. But the rabbits are too clever for us. They appear to have gone elsewhere. For the time being at least. I know full well that they will be right back the moment that The Ferretman has gone.

So the week outside has been a source of irritation. Inside I’ve been much happier. Inside I’ve been obsessed with my hippeastrum.

Last year my sister Lucy and I each bought a hippeastrum bulb from Petersham Nursery. Simply described as ‘orange’. We planted them at the same time in the middle of November. Hers went ballistic, grew about two foot tall in what seemed like a matter of days, and was flowering by Christmas. Mine did pretty much nothing. For weeks I thought it was dead. Until it showed a little tongue of green. And grew. And grew.

And then last week it began to flower.

img_6129

I’ve been recording its progress.

img_6154

First one flower began to open.

img_6207

It opened a little bit more.

img_6246

Then another flower got going.

img_6253

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

img_4490

At night, under a spotlight, it glistened and gleamed. It was hard to believe that it was real.

img_6264
Hippeastrum Rilona

 

This morning it was in full flower. Taking up so much space that my problem was a lack of a background to shoot it against. I tried black velvet – not a large enough piece to fit in the whole flower head. But enough to give an idea of its fabulousness.

I’ve had more pleasure from this one bulb than from a million muscari. But they will have their chance to redeem themselves when they start to flower. Then I will forgive them anything.

 

Big Brother and Bokeh

So it’s Week Five in the Big Brother house.

What am I saying…? I’m not in the Big Brother house. I don’t watch the Big Brother house. I have no interest in the Big Brother house. But, since I started these weekly posts, whenever I start to think about the next one I hear a booming voice in my head saying ‘Week Five (or four or three or whatever week it happens to be) in the Big Brother garden.’ And I know it’s time to get writing.

Maybe it’s the weather that’s making me hear voices. This week it feels colder and greyer than ever and I’m beginning to feel a little bit stir crazy. I’m looking out at the garden, and I have absolutely no desire to go out there. Which is making it something of a challenge to come up with what to write.

But, luckily for me, there was a day this week that the Great Garden God smiled. And the day he did was Tuesday, which happened to be the day that Chris, the Rose Pruner, was coming to help me with pruning the roses on the pergola that are too high for me to get to on my own. It was the day that the wind dropped and the the sun shone, and we were able to get on with pruning, and I tidied up the apple trees which have been nagging me  for weeks. And apart from discovering that the pergola that holds up the roses and wisteria is rotting away, which is one of those one step forward, two steps back moments that go hand in hand with being a gardener, it was a really good garden day.

One of the best things about it was that I got to use my new Niwaki telescopic pruner for cutting stuff that is very high up. I bought it for myself in January after last year’s purchase of Niwaki shears changed the box shaping/pittosporum sculpting task forever. (I find it hard to believe that I am the woman who gets excited over a garden tool. But hey ho.)

So I was too busy wielding my new toy to have much time to take photos for this post. Which is not such a bad thing because as much as I love my roses they are not at their photogenic best when they’ve just had a short back and sides. But I did manage to stop and take some shots of the seedheads of the Hydrangea Annabelle to send in for the last assignment of my online photography course.

img_5889
Bokeh!

This was my attempt at achieving/creating Bokeh. Have you heard of Bokeh? Me neither. (Or maybe you have heard of Bokeh, and it’s just me.) For the uninitiated let me tell you that Bokeh is ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.’ It means ‘blur’ in Japanese.

I used to think blur was a bad thing in photography. Which just goes to show how much you can learn in a short space of time.

Each of the four assignments I have had to complete for the course have required me to send in two to three photos. With the lack of flower action in the garden and the inclement weather I had to resort to sending a photo I took last year of Amelanchier blossom shot against Tulip Apricot Beauty as an example of using a contrasting background.

img_2991

I was worried it might be cheating to use last year’s material. But I’ve just heard back from Clive (did I mention how much I love Clive!) and he loved the combination of white and apricot. And said it was an ‘attractive flower study’. And he thought the ‘Bokeh’ shot was the best one I’ve sent him.

So I’m happy. In spite of the weather it’s been another good week. And who knows what next week will bring!

The Garden Shuffle

It’s been another damp and drizzly week in the garden. Until yesterday, when there were proper blue patches between the clouds, a bit of proper sunshine. And for the first time this year I was able to go outside and do a proper shuffle.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the garden shuffle? It’s one of my favourite things: the slow meander around the garden, usually with cup of tea in hand, not doing, just seeing. It’s when I take the time to properly look at what is happening out there, without feeling I have to do anything about it. (Apart from pulling up the odd weed!) My favourite time to shuffle is first thing in the morning. Ideally the temperature is warm enough for me to go out in my dressing gown. Although we’ve got a while to go before that happens!

Yesterday the sunshine didn’t appear until the afternoon, so a dressing gown would have been entirely inappropriate. But still it was warm enough to wander, and within minutes of being out there, cup of tea and me were shuffling in perfect harmony.

There’s more to see than you might imagine. Snowdrops are opening, yellow aconites are bright against the brown earth under the ash tree by the drive, the unfolding heads of the hellebores are rising up out of the leaf mould.

img_6021
Snowdrops are opening

And yesterday the low sun of afternoon was playing wonderful tricks with the leaves of the Asplenium scolopendrium fern.

img_6035
Asplenium scolopendrium

This is the week that the green shoots have really started to get going, pushing up all over the place, and as I shuffle I’m thinking about all the bulbs I planted last autumn. (One of the great joys of bulb planting when your memory isn’t what it used to be is the element of surprise!) It’s coming back to me that I crammed the recently re-edited centre bed with tulips, choosing my selection after reading an article in Country Life by Tom Coward at Gravetye Manor… but what were they? I can’t remember and I can’t find the article.

There are the narcissus I planted under the new hornbeams in the field garden, selected following advice from The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley that was my bible last year and will be again in 2017. There are more alliums in the front garden, a row of muscari under the espaliered apples in the vegetable garden. Probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten about. I can’t wait to see what comes up!

And this week I’ve been writing lists of plants to buy to fill the gaps I didn’t get round to last year, and I’ve ordered my dahlias, (one of my choices is Otto’s Thrill after seeing it at Petersham Nurseries), and I’m sorting through my seed packets, and watering my pelargonium cuttings. And next week there are roses and wisteria to be pruned, and I’m hoping for another dry day so that I can tidy up the apple trees.

img_3501
Dahlia Otto’s Thrill

And finally, I’ve been getting on with Assignment 3 for the Photography course I’m doing with mygardenschool. One of the topics set for us was still life sequences, shooting the same subject from different angles. This is a shot of a moth orchid I submitted – now I’m waiting for feedback.

img_5945
Moth Orchid still life

Hope Clive likes it!

All in all it’s been a good week. This weekly challenge I’ve set myself for this blog is forcing me to pay attention. And I’m looking forward to seeing what I can find for next week’s post.

Bad Timing

It’s beginning to dawn on me that my timing may be a little out, it being January, and here I am committed to weekly posts about my garden, which at the moment is grey and gloomy and perishingly cold, and reluctant to offer up too many good stories.

So it’s a challenge.

But January feels like a good time for a challenge. And I’m telling myself that if I can come up with something to write about for a post at this miserable time of year, and if I can come up with subject matter to shoot for the online plant and flower photography course I’m doing at the moment with the great Clive Nichols at mygardenschool, then it’s going to seem like a piece of cake when things warm up.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

And when I’m really struggling it helps to remind myself of the damp and dismal winter we had last year, when it didn’t get cold, it just got murky. This year we have had more than our fair share of frosty mornings when the the sun shines and the world is ice encrusted and glistening. The silhouettes of the trees stand like sculptures against the winter skies, the sunsets take my breath away. And why is it that on these glorious days I don’t have time to get outside with my camera and only have spare time on days like today when it’s perishing and grey and…

Oh stop moaning woman and get on with the job in hand.

Because the truth is there’s still so much to enjoy in the garden. I just have to brave the elements, whatever the elements happen to be. And even though it’s freezing degrees fahrenheit outside and the ground is rock hard, the plants know that spring is around the corner and they are getting themselves in shape for it.

First the Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrops. Never ones to be put off by the cold they are getting ready to flower any day now.

img_5839
Snowdrops getting ready for action

Then there’s the Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ I planted in the autumn. It’s clustering beautifully and getting ready to put on a show at any moment.

img_5876
Enough buds

One of my all time favourite plants, the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, which has delivered its structural elegance to the winter garden, is limbering up and preparing to put on it’s lime green loveliness for the benefit of contrast, so that when the tulips and the daffodils and the scillas and the muscari come into flower they have something to work with. I have several strategically placed around the garden. Last year’s mild winter saw it flowering from November. This year we have to wait. But it’s so worth it.

img_5636
Euphorbia with rain

The hellebores are getting ready by the driveway. The Sarcococca confusa is wafting occasional bursts of scent, but really wants it to warm up a couple of degrees in order for it to release the full strength of its sweetness. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is laden with buds whose scent is one of the most exquisite of any I know, so that people who rarely notice such things comment as they walk past it to the kitchen door.

img_5845
Euphorbia with Daphne and red stemmed Cornus

In the front garden buds are showing on the Amalanchier and the guelder rose and the Prunus. Once you start paying attention it’s amazing how much is happening out there.

And inside I’m playing around with reflectors and backgrounds and apertures. And  I’m breaking my resolution not to buy flowers because at the moment I have no option.

img_5729
Tulip against black velvet

img_5758
Ranunculus from above

img_5745
Don’t know what this is but I like it!

img_5804
Inner tulip

I can’t wait until the cutting garden starts delivering because this year I’m hoping that I will have much more of a clue about how to take photos of what comes out of it.

So… I’ve written myself into a good mood. This week’s post has delivered a whole lot more than I imagined it would. And there’s next week to look forward to.

Bare bones and skeletons

So it begins.

With snow.

2017-01-13-12-56-43

Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.

But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.

For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!

The garden at Little Court House 2
Room for improvement….

And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.

Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.

Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.

As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.

Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.

I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.

2017-01-13-13-11-35
Work in progress!

Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.

This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.

2017-01-13-12-56-04
Snowy garden

At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!

There’s beauty to be found in the bones.

My Gardening Year

I gave up on New Year resolutions a long time ago. Too easy to make; too hard to keep.

But with the Christmas decorations back in the attic, the pine needles swept away with the Christmas tree, the Christmas cards sent off for recycling, I’m beginning to feel the shiver of anticipation that is one of the joys of being a gardener at this time of year. It comes from spotting the silver green shoots of the snowdrops pushing up through the cold bare soil, from catching a waft of scent from the Sarcococca by the back door when I put out the rubbish, from seeing the spiky fronds of the Muscari assembling along the edges of the pathways. I sit in my kitchen and look out at the bare bones of the outdoor space that I’ve made for myself and I’m full of excitement for the year ahead.

So I know we’ve got Trump and Brexit and melting ice caps and all manner of scary things going on in the world. But – right here, right now – deep in the brown earth of my garden things are gathering strength and energy and getting ready to put on a show. Whatever else happens the garden will do it’s thing for better or worse. And I’m going to be right there with it.

Because this year I’m going to do what I’ve been promising myself for years and keep a regular record. This January of 2017 my resolution is to write a weekly post about whatever is happening in my garden that captures my attention, so that one day I can look back and be reminded of what a year in my garden really feels like. One of my birthday presents at the beginning of December was a subscription to Clive Nichols’ online photography course with The English Gardening School. (Which I’m about to start!) So hopefully, as the year progresses, the photos that go with my posts will have that extra edge. But whatever happens I will do my best to post something, anything to give you, me, and anybody else who is interested, an account of the ups and downs of my gardening year.

So…

Watch this space.

 

Not all who wander are lost – Part V

Is late always better than never?

What about the christmas cards that arrive after the big day? The guests who turn up at the party at the moment when people are beginning to leave?

There are times when – given the choice – you’d go for never!

So the fact that I’m posting about the last day of our drive through France and Spain to Majorca this summer, with November just round the corner, might feel a bit pointless to some. But one day I will read these posts back and remember what a great time we had. And if I don’t write about the last day I will be sorry. So I’m doing this with my fingers crossed that in this case late is the preferred option.

The last day of our trip is a Sunday. And we’re in Barcelona. Is there anywhere better to spend a Sunday? I really don’t think so.

We start with breakfast at the hotel. If you read my post about our stay at H1868 last year you will know that the breakfasts there are something of a thing.

Breakfast at H1898
Where to start???

Suffice to say they continue to be something of a thing. The only challenge is to keep it reasonable! Because it would be easy to go a bit mad. And we’ve got lunch booked at another of Colin (you remember Colin?)’s recommendations. And experience tells me to hold back in preparation for something special.

So I stay focussed and ignore the siren call of pancakes and muffins and eggs and bacon and waffles and ham and cheese and…. It takes a lot of restraint.

After breakfast we split with our friends who are off to the Sagrada Familia. We’ve been there before so we head for another Gaudi classic, La Pedrera.

What to say about La Pedrera? Except OMG. In very very big letters. It is sensational and extraordinary and completely bloomin’ fantastic. And you just absolutely have to go.

Here’s the thing for me about Gaudi. Before coming to Barcelona – and going to some of the sites of his most famous works, and visiting the museum next to the Cathedral that guides you through his life and work, and beginning to get really interested in him – what I knew about Gaudi was that he was a Spanish architect who had designed some rather weird and mad looking buildings that I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked, I knew that people talked about places being Gaudiesque, and I thought I knew what they were talking about. But I didn’t really get it.

Well, now I do. Now I’m thinking that Gaudi’s buildings might actually make more sense to me than any others. Because he takes his passion for the natural world as his inspiration and uses it to structure his work. So there’s an intriguing reason for everything being the way it is, and when you know that inside and out this particular building is a constant curve with no straight lines, and that the facade is self supporting which means that the floors inside don’t need load bearing walls, which means that the walls can go wherever the owners feel like putting them, and that everything functional on the roof has been turned into sculpture, well you get it and you fall in love.

So we spend a wonderful couple of hours at La Pedrera, and then we jump in a taxi and head off to meet our friends at the Picasso museum. But the queues are long and we have missed them, so we go nearby to the Fundacio Gaspar

And discover Anthony McCall.

Anthony McCall is an English artist who does stuff with light. Intrigued? No. Graham wasn’t either. In the first room we watch a video of a middle aged man in front of an audience pinning sheets of white paper to a wall. He takes a long time choosing each sheet, holds it up, turns it, considers it, pins it alongside the previous sheet. Then he attaches a piece of string coated with black paint/powder? across the entire width of the wall and pings it against the surface of the paper so that it leaves a dusty black line. Fascinated? Graham most definitely isn’t. And at this stage nor am I.

On to the next installation. Another black and white video of people in white boiler suits on a headland throwing flares into holes in the ground. The camera is hand held, the picture shaky, people in white, it’s getting dark. The woosh of the flares as they light is the only sound. Graham has given up and gone.

But  I stay. And as the holes light up I begin to see a pattern. And begin to watch for the next one. And as I watch I’m filling up with a rather pleasant sensation of calm. And I begin to enjoy myself. And find it rather hard to tear myself away.

The next installation is in a dark room. I push through a screen to go in. I’m the only person there. Two lines of light on the floor, an arc and a straight line. At first I think they are white tape stuck down. But as I watch, I realise that very very slowly the lines are moving – towards each other, away from each other, converging, crossing, changing all the time. It’s mesmerising. By now Graham has come back to find me and he gets hooked too. It takes other people pushing in through the door screen to make us move on.

Look out for Anthony McCall. This is a wonderful show. The last room is another blackout space with scrunched up newspapers filling the floor so that you shuffle through, kicking your feet like a child. It’s like walking through fallen leaves in autumn. Mirrors walls reflect dark images of yourself back to you. A screen in the middle shows another black and white film… of the installation in use. You watch people doing what you are doing. It’s absolutely fantastic.

img_4187
You have to be there!

There are other installations on our way to the last room but I won’t describe each one. As much as I would like to. I’ve probably lost you already. But when we leave I am filled with peace and calm and happiness. Which is rather wonderful, and the last thing I expected.

We walk down to the shore. Beautiful Barcelona with its seaside vibe and beach side promenades. We find our friends at Kaiku, (click on this link – it’s a really great website!!) a Colin recommendation and right up there with the others. Sitting looking out towards the water, surrounded by locals, eating terrific seafood, with the Barcelona Sunday crowd out in force, it’s hard to imagine that life could get any better.

img_4194
Sunday Barcelona beach

After lunch we wander along the promenade, drinking in the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves in this unique place.

img_4197
Beach style Barcelona

Then it’s back to the hotel, and we pack up our stuff and load it into the car. Up to the roof terrace to chill, read a bit, sit a bit, consider a bit about how much fun we’ve had since we left England. Then we say goodbye to our friends (who have failed to get a cabin on the ferry so are flying to join us in the morning) and we drive to the port.

This year we’re more familiar with the bizarre procedure that goes with taking the ferry to Alcudia, of finding the queue for cars, separating to get on board, and reuniting once we’re there. It still feels a little strange to wave goodbye to Graham and head off on my own in the dark.

img_4195
The last leg

But it goes to plan, and we find each other, find our cabin. And we sleep a bit and the boat slides through the sea and we arrive. Our journey is over; our holiday in Majorca is beginning. It’s been the most fun we could have imagined. Nothing we would change about any of it. Would we do it again? You bet we would.

Not all who wander are lost – Part IV

On the whole I like to have a plan. I feel happier when I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. But on our trip through France it’s been the things we haven’t planned that have provided some of the best moments. Like our lunch at Les Orangeries on our second day; like the wonderful evening we spent dancing in the village square at Paunat; like our visit to the amazing Chateau de Marqueyssac with its extraordinary gardens. And like our magical supper by the side of the Canal du Midi while the sun set over the water.

Now – on our fourth morning – we’re starting with breakfast in the charming courtyard at Camellas-Lloret.

img_4098
The courtyard at Camellas-Lloret

And here’s another thing we hadn’t planned – looks like our fourth day on the road is going to be conducted according to the itinerary provided for us by Colin, the owner of this latest of our B & B stopovers. So we have got a plan; but it’s not ours. And that is fine with us. Because after his recommendation for dinner last night, we’re excited to see what’s in store for us today.

Breakfast is delicious – all the places we’ve stayed in have served great breakfasts. So really good coffee, fresh fruit, pastries, breads, jams, all served with the easy elegance that characterises this particular stopover. And it’s another glorious day. We sit at a long table under an awning with the other guests, a delightful young couple who turn out, like Colin, to be Barcelona enthusiasts and offer us advice on where to stay and what to do when we get there. Because that’s where we’re heading for today.

Before we leave Camellas-Lloret Colin invites us to take a look at the apartment that he and Annie have created out of the building in the corner of the courtyard. It’s empty of tenants at the moment so we can have a sneaky peak. And I’m so glad we do, because it’s a miracle of style and ingenuity in a very tiny space.

We wave goodbye to Montreal and get back on the road. And now we’re driving across a wide open landscape with fields of golden sunflowers, their drooping heads heavy with seeds. In the far distance we can just make out the hazy blue silhouette of the Pyrenees. I’ve been going to the Highlands all my life, I’ve slept in a tent at Everest Base Camp surrounded by the highest mountains in the world, every year if I’m lucky I get to ski in the Alps. There is something about the sight of mountains on the horizon that always makes my heart beat a little faster.

But we’re going to have to put off our mountain adventure for a little while. We have had strict instructions from Colin to head for Mirepoix, where he has assured us we will ‘experience a moment’. So we do what we’re told, drive into what seems to be a pleasant if unexciting French town, park the car, wander for a while, uncertain of what and where and if this ‘moment’ of ours is going to happen. Until we turn a corner and find ourselves on the edge of the market square in the centre of town.

And Colin is absolutely right. We experience a moment to beat all moments. Because this place is a medieval miracle. We are open mouthed. And slightly shell-shocked. People are going about their daily business as if this was any old place. Rather than something completely extraordinarily wonderful. All I can say is go.

We leave Mirepoix and drive towards the Pyrenees, the scenery changing from gold to green on either side of us as we start the climb into the foothills. And now we’re stopping off at Les Cabannes, a village tucked against the feet of a mountain range that will see us through into Spain. Here is another place we would never have thought of to visit. But Colin has told us about a restaurant there run by local farmers, who serve meat reared on their farms. Where we can try the best steaks, the best burgers, the best… Well let’s just say the place is going to have to deliver to live up to the hype.

img_4138
Poster for La Maison Lacube – and these are the guys who serve us!

Which it does. We sit on the small terrace in front of La Maison Lacube on the edge of the village square. There isn’t a seat to be had and the waiters are busy. But they take our order with great charm and friendliness and we sit in the sun and watch the world come to this one little place. Because inside are a whole load more tables and they are all filled up with locals. And more are turning up and being turned away. And we’re really glad that Colin has booked us a table. And even more glad when the food arrives. Because the burgers really are the best we’ve ever eaten. And their version of shepherds pie is possibly the best shepherds pie we’ve ever tried. (Which for a woman who is ferociously loyal about her family shepherds pie recipe is saying a lot!)

img_4137
View from the restaurant

We’re pretty full by the time we leave and happy to sit in the car and enjoy the view as we drive up into the mountains. Another change in scenery –  we’ve seen so many different landscapes in the past few days. And this has got to be amongst the most spectacular: plunging ravines, densely wooded slopes, breathtaking blue skies. The road twists and winds its way upwards and we crane our necks from side to side to see as much as we can. Because Colin has told us that if we stick with the scenic route all the way into Spain we’re going to be on it for rather longer than we would like. So we’re going through the tunnel, which takes us under rather than through the mountains, misses out a big chunk of scenic, but delivers us into Spain in quick time.

The tunnel is super modern – all smooth road surface and twinkling lights – and driving through it we have the bizarre experience of being in a computer game, hard to describe, you kind of have to be there to know what I mean.  When we come out at the other end the countryside has changed again, and now there’s a whole different vibe – here there are Spanish place names replacing the French, the world is hotter, drier, browner. We pass the ridge of one of the most spectacular (and definitely the rudest) mountain ranges I think I’ve ever seen. (If you click on the link here you will see what I mean!) This is Montserrat, which literally means serrated, and it’s not difficult to see where the name came from. We indulge in some childish giggling as we wind our way towards the coast and the outer edges of one of my favourite cities in the world.

Barcelona makes me happy. It’s beautiful and energetic and colourful and wild and just bloomin’ wonderful.We’re staying at the same hotel we did on our way home last year, the H1868 just off La Rambla right in the centre of the city. It’s a whole different ballgame from the places we’ve stayed on our drive through France, very stylish but not so characterful, a little bit corporate, but oh so comfortable. The beds… Oh the beds… I feel I could sleep for a week if I am given the chance. But what a waste not to get out and about in this fantastic city. So we go up to the roof of the hotel for a drink in what must be one of the coolest bars in town, and then head out into the happening and heaving La Rambla to walk to the restaurant Colin has recommended.

Which is where, for the first time, the plan goes a bit tits up. Because a) – it takes us ages to find, and b) – the restaurant is full and doesn’t have any tables free. But they very kindly take us to their new sister restaurant round the corner – which has lots of tables (in fact we’re the only people in the place) but is slightly lacking in character. Still there is a delightful waiter and decent food. And we’re feeling rather weary. So we go with it. But we’re still full from stuffing our faces with burgers at lunchtime. So this meal is not all it could have been.

We finish off a long but wonderful day with a walk back to the hotel through Barcelona’s teeming streets, excited at the prospect of sleeping in comfort. And looking forward to seeing what tomorrow is going to deliver. It’s our last day before we get on the boat to our final destination. Can it live up to the rest of our trip? It’s a big ask.

Not all who wander are lost – Part III

It’s been brought to my attention that the title of these posts is a little misleading. Because the reality is that we haven’t actually done that much wandering. And even though we’ve been following the satnav, we’ve quite often been lost!

In the old days, when we found ourselves in the middle of somewhere that wasn’t where we wanted to be, there was a lot of trying to make sense of road signs and rows about which way to turn. ‘Left or right…? What do you mean, you’re not sure? You’re the one with the map.’ It’s a very different experience these days. But the rows are still a possibility. Which is why having friends in the car with us is a very good thing. When it comes to keeping our marriage intact!

On this trip, thanks to a combination of the satnav and some good old fashioned map reading, we’ve managed to find our way to Paunat and Le Moulin Neuf – which is where you will find us on the third morning of our trip, eating breakfast on the terrace in the sunshine. And is most definitely where we want to be.

The terrace at Le Moulin Neuf
The terrace at Le Moulin Neuf

Fresh fruit, delicious croissant, good coffee – and as an added bonus we get to catch up on a bit of local gossip with the owner Robert, who entertains us with stories about the tensions and squabbles that go on behind the picture book facades of some of the villages in the area.

And the idyll goes on after we leave. Because if there was ever a day for breathtaking scenery, today is it. Everywhere we look there are chateaus perched on wooded hillsides, village houses built into rock faces, stone cottages looking out over meandering rivers. I have never seen so many lovely buildings crammed into one bit of staggeringly beautiful countryside.

Within a few miles of leaving Paunat – thinking that nowhere could be prettier – we drive through Limieul with our mouths open. On another perfect morning the houses of this lovely town are glowing in the sunshine. Built into the hillside, they face out across the sparkling blue waters of the Dordogne. It’s very tempting to stop and explore. But we’re on a mission and not to be distracted. We’re heading for the Chateau de Marqueyssac.

This famous chateau is built on the top of cliffs looking out across the Dordogne valley. It’s a stunning building in a stunning location with a stunning view. But most stunning of all are its gardens. Over 150,000 box bushes cut into fantastic shapes and structures. It’s a struggle to find words to describe it. All I can say is that, even if you aren’t interested in gardens, you have to go.

After we leave the gardens of Marqueyssac we head for Sarlat, a lovely town with a beautiful old centre. But by now it’s scorchingly hot, and the town centre is teeming with people, and the place we choose for lunch is ok but not great. So we don’t stay long. Back in the car and now we’re heading for our third stopover, in Montreal just south of Carcassonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

We’re taking the motorway for a while and, as we leave the Dordogne and head south, it’s amazing how the mood and attitude of the drivers around us seems to change with the countryside. Is it because we’ve got a car with English number plates, could there be an extra amount of anti Brit feeling post Brexit? Whatever the reason, as we pass Toulouse there’s a definite feeling of aggression from other drivers, and we’re rather relieved to leave the motorway and drive between fields of sunflowers to the hillside town of Montreal.

Another night, another completely different stopover. From what we can see of Montreal it seems pretty without being a showstopper, although we’re learning on this journey not to judge a book by its cover. We park in a side square and roll our suitcases up a side street and into narrow alleyway where a wooden door in a high stone wall bears a sign that reads Camellas-Lloret. Knock on the door and it swings open and there stands the owner Colin, glass of rose in hand.

Colin is a larger than life South African, married to Annie, who is from America and is petite and lovely, and between them they run this lovely B & B with great flair and charm. Colin shows us in to a village house on several levels built around a lovely courtyard.

 

img_4104
Courtyard at Camellas-Lloret

This place is quirky and modern and super stylish. We feel like we’re walking into the pages of Elle Decor. There’s a room on the ground floor crammed with lovely things for sale for house and home, a winding staircase up to bedrooms on the first and second floor, an elegantly furnished salon. Our rooms are a good size with futon beds and decent bathrooms.

We leave our bags and head out to join Colin for a glass of rose on the terrace. Turns out Colin is an organiser par excellence. While we sip our wine he tells us to leave everything in his hands, that he’s booked us a place for dinner that we’re going to love, that he can help us with suggestions of where to go and what to do. When we tell him that we’re on our way to Barcelona the next day, we discover that he used to work there and knows the best way to get there, the best places to stop on our way, and the best places to go to when we arrive.

Now it’s quite possible that there are people out there who might feel a little overwhelmed by this degree of intervention in their travel plans. And we did get back into the car that evening to drive to Colin’s recommended restaurant feeling a little uncertain about having our lives stage-managed to quite such an extent. But all our doubts and fears were laid to rest the moment we arrived at La Rive-Belle. Because it was unique and extraordinary and wonderful. And we would never have found it without him.

On this warm summer’s evening we drove out of Montreal for about fifteen minutes, turned off the main road, and drove along a track between fields of mown hay into the middle of nowhere. Could this be right? Were we lost… again? We came to a stretch of quiet water. We had reached our destination. And a little shack of a restaurant with a terrace right on the edge of the Canal du Midi.

img_4107
La Rive-Belle

We had arrived at La Rive-Belle at Ecluse de Herminis. The tables and chairs were basic and a little unsteady, the menu was limited, there was only one person serving. But the tables were full of locals, the sun was setting over the water, and the food was excellent.

img_4105

So another great day, with more unforgettable experiences to add to the rapidly growing collection. And tomorrow we head through the Pyrenees into Spain.

 

Not all who wander are lost – Part II

Sleep… It’s a wonderful thing. Sadly I’m not as familiar with it these days as I used to be. The knack of getting into bed, going straight to sleep, and waking up in the morning seems to have left me. Particularly when it’s hot. But nights pass and the sun rises and each morning is a new beginning. And at least the room at the Chateau where we stay for the first night of our road trip is lovely, and the bed is very comfortable.

The Second Day

We get up and go down to a really great breakfast in the beautiful dining room with its view of the sloping lawns, tapestries on the wall, round table and – joy of joys – a lazy susan spread with bowls of apricots, home-made jams, fruit, delicious bread and croissants, and really good coffee. We love this place and will definitely make the effort to come back. Although we might find somewhere different for dinner!

img_4015
View from our bedroom window

Another stunning day; blue skies, sunshine and the Dordogne is beckoning. Back into the car and the first excitement is that our route takes us past the buildings and paddocks of the Le Mans circuit. And before we know it we’re actually driving along a section of one of the most famous race tracks in the world.

No, we’re not lost. The Mulsanne Straight is the 3.7 mile section of the 24 hour circuit which is part of the national road system. I am not the biggest fan of car racing – why anyone would want to drive around and around the same bit of tarmac for 24 hours without stopping I simply can’t imagine. But even I get a buzz from driving along a stretch of road where cars in the race achieve a speed of over 250 mph.

The countryside we drive through during the morning is pleasant enough without taking our breath away. It’s great to be off the motorway, although one of the disadvantages of the smaller roads is that you do tend to get stuck behind slow lorries for long stretches without being able to overtake. But the fields stretch out on either side of us, the trees line the roads in that uniquely French way, and some of the villages we drive through are very pretty.

We talk amongst ourselves about the meal we ate the night before and how it is possible for food to cost so much and taste of so little. Breakfast at the Chateau went a long way to making up for it, but we’re still in need of food reassurance and lunch is beckoning. So we stop at the very promising looking Les Orangeries in Lussac les Chateau. Which turns out to deliver even more than it promises!

Fantastic lunch sitting on a shady terrace in a walled garden looking out across green lawns. Charming service, food delicious enough to banish the horrors of the previous night, and the shade provided by the tree over our heads sufficient to protect us from the intense heat. Definitely a place to return to; maybe for a night next time!

img_4042
Lunch on the Terrace

Back in the car, back on the road; and now the scenery around us is beginning to show its true colours. We are in the Dordogne with its rolling hills and wooded valleys. It’s impossible not to come over all bucolic and start waxing lyrical! The roads we wind our way along take us beside tree-lined fields of mown hay, past tumbling rivers and through the light-filtered glades of green forests. It feels like we’re being drawn into the heart of another France, where the villages nestle in the nooks and crannies of a landscape that hasn’t changed that much for the last few centuries. The busy motorways and tollroads feel a million miles away.

We’re heading for a night at the Moulin Neuf, which is just outside the ridiculously pretty little town of Paunat. A few struggles finding it; the satnav is sulking after its performance the night before and refuses to cooperate for the last few, crucial, miles. At one point it takes us down what it tells us is a road, but which turns out to be the drive to someone’s house; a house which looks a bit rundown as we approach it, with decidedly odd looking people standing around the front door, who watch us suspiciously as we pull up and start to move towards us in a way which makes us feel we definitely shouldn’t be there. We back away fast.

We get to where we are supposed to be in the end, and are met by Robert, the owner of the Moulin Neuf, who wheels our luggage from the car in a nifty little trailer, and shows us to our rooms in a separate building next to his lovely old mill.

img_4059
Our Second night

This B & B has the most stunning setting out of all the stunning settings in which we stay on our journey. It is tucked into the bottom of a little valley, with chairs and tables set out in the shade of the trees, the sound of water tumbling along a water course that runs under the house and through the garden, wisteria on the walls and blue painted shutters at the windows; completely different to the grander Chateau of our first night but completely lovely.

img_4055
Lovely Moulin Neuf

Our room on the ground floor is small but prettily furnished, with a good sized bathroom, although the room our friends end up in is definitely of the not enough space to swing a cat variety and is rather in need of a face lift. The owner has been in touch before we left to say that he has an extra booking needing more nights then the one we were staying, so wondered if one of us would be prepared to go into the room which turns out to be the one that, if it were a dog, would definitely be the runt of the litter. Our friends drew the short straw!

This is a very different experience to our first night. There the rooms were state of the art comfortable; here things feel a little bit tired. But the setting and the friendly welcome more than make up for it, and we wander around the lovely garden before getting back into the car and heading into the village. Because it turns out that, entirely without planning it, we’ve timed our stay in Paunat to perfection. Three nights every summer the village has an open evening where the local people gather in the square for food and wine and dancing. And this Thursday is the last one.

img_4061
Village house in Paunat

The village square setting is picture book perfect; there are stalls set up selling the food of the region, everything from foie gras to suckling pig to walnut tarts. The whole village is there, talking and eating and drinking and dancing. There are families sitting at tables spread with all kinds of delicious looking food, old ladies sitting comfortably on plastic chairs watching their grandchildren running around them, people queuing for the most popular stalls, men turning huge spits with meat sizzling over the flames. A man and a woman are doing a great job of singing to a recorded backing track, all kinds of songs old and new. I love watching the little children, the way they get swept up by the music so that they twirl and skip on the cobbles of the village square with complete abandon. And the teenage boys who cluster on the edge of the space that has been left clear for dancing, looking with yearning at the flocks of teenage girls who are happy to join in while the boys hold back.

img_4063
Living it up in Paunat

We soak up the atmosphere and can’t believe our luck. But it’s been a long day and we’ve covered a good few miles, so while the village keeps going we head back to the mill for a not entirely comfortable night. Tomorrow we are going to explore a bit before we get back on the road. And then it’s on to Pyrenees-Midi for night three.